Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The Interpreter's Tale 2

Continued from yesterday
... There is a scenario that can take place here, one that I want to air as a cautionary tale before we begin. Love of the Bible usually leads a person to pour over its words. There is a magic to the biblical text that makes someone, especially a recent convert to Christianity, to swallow up the Bible, to drink deeply from its words.

This person probably knows very little about the historical context of the Bible. He or she is a sponge. They long for teaching. They long for explanation. They want to know more, more, more. They make sense of the words however they know how. Hopefully the Holy Spirit gives them some insights to make up for background knowledge. They certainly feel like God is speaking directly to them page after page.

This thirst for the Bible often leads to deeper study. Tell me about these Romans who crucified Jesus? What was crucifixion like? Tell me about these Ninevites in Jonah. Tell me about these Canaanites. Now who was Ba'al? Who was this Paul?

Superficial answers to these questions often feed the magic. But the deeper this person goes into the original context of the Bible, the more they may face potential disenchantment. The reason for this is because to read the Bible for what it really meant almost inevitably creates a greater distance between the words and you as a reader. Before, the words were all for you. Now you must negotiate in what way the words were both for them and for you.

Am I to greet people in my church with a "holy kiss"? Are women to keep silent in the churches? Am I not supposed to eat pork? Must I not work on the Sabbath, which it turns out is from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown? Am I blessed if I bash the babies of the Babylonians?

Some people, particularly the imaginative, negotiate this duality of Scripture just fine. The words can be for the original audiences of the Bible in one way and for us in another. The same Holy Spirit can apply the words one way for us no matter how he applied the words for them. But the more concrete may find the text slipping away from them and into the distant world of the past, where the words were clearly for them first. And they were quite different from me.

Some intuitively avoid the journey. They avoid any deep study of the Bible and keep things superficial. I've known pastors of this sort. They avoid going to school to be ordained as a minister and stick to a lighter route that allows them not to face what "so called scholars" have to say about the Bible or theology. They don't want to lose the magic. Groups can even develop training schools for ministers in part designed to avoid deep study of the Bible in context.

Fundamentalism arose in the 1920s in resistance to the rise of historical methods of studying the Bible. A collection of conservative scholars erected a set of scholarly walls setting boundaries that interpreters were not allowed to cross, and this became part of the substratum to neo-evangelicalism when it arose in the 1940s. The modern methods of historical study are still used, but at these boundaries, they serve to reinforce existing positions rather than to draw the most likely conclusions of the evidence.

So it is ironic to find that a great number of Bible scholars are former fundamentalists. Their pursuit of the magic led them to study the Bible seriously in context. But their study of the Bible in context took away the magical enchantment the Bible once had for them. It became a collection of ancient books. At worst, it became a biology experiment, a dissected frog whose parts are all clearly labeled but that certainly is no longer alive. [1]

Surely it is possible to study the Bible seriously in context and yet not lose a sense of divine enchantment. On the one hand, it seems dubious ever to take an "ignorance is bliss" approach. Since Christians claim to be proclaiming the truth, it would be deeply contradictory if we have to avoid the truth like the plague on such a fundamental level in order to maintain our positions. If we have to avoid the truth to maintain the magical enchantment of the Bible, then the magic is not real in the first place.

What I would like to suggest is that there are two slight shifts that can make it possible for us to keep the magic while we pursue a deeper understanding of the Bible. First is to realize that the magical enchantment of the Bible's words was never a function of the text itself but was always a function of the Holy Spirit to the extent it was real. The magic of Scripture is not in the words. It is rather in God as he dances with us while we read and meditate on the words.

If we can make this shift, then the Spirit can continue to dance with us. It is not a dance with some fixed meaning to the words in time. It is a dance with the words loosened from their moorings in history. [2] It is a poetic dance that can hear God speak through words no matter what they first meant. This is arguably how the biblical authors themselves danced with the text of the Old Testament.

A second shift is to learn to appreciate how God has danced with his people at other times in history. Can I experience the magic of God's dance with Israel in the middle of the dance floor while I am standing on the side waiting my turn to cut in? Can I even learn to appreciate the possibility that God danced with the editors of hypothetical sources behind the Gospels or the Pentateuch? Can I appreciate God's dances with others when their dance was different from my dance?

In short, I believe it is possible to enter a "second naivete" in our reading of the Bible, new forms of magical enchantment. [3] The one is an enchantment with the Holy Spirit on the dance floor of biblical words loosed from their historical moorings. The second is an enchantment with God's walk through history with his people, knowing that I am also part of the people of God.

Let us commit ourselves as we journey toward reading the Bible in context to keeping these enchantments. There is no disputing that the Bible had a first meaning and that this first meaning was a function of what words meant when they were first written. When God spoke, he wanted to be understood, so it is no surprise that the words of the Bible made sense in the categories of its first audiences. But that does not mean they must lose their magic as God's words for us as well.

[1] This is a commonly used image in this conversation. I am not sure who first originated it.

[2] We will need to make clear the boundaries of these dances. There have always been such boundaries, even though we may not have been fully aware of where they came from.

[3] The term "second naivete" comes from Paul Ricoeur.

1 comment:

Susan Moore said...

This is very well said, thank you for this.
As a new graduate student of Theology, I was initially disgusted at having to learn the historical contexts of scripture. I knew it was coming, yet when it did come it nauseated me. But then in my anguish Jesus reminded me that a consequence of His healing of me included, for the first time in my life, the ability to remember events in relationship to time. Back then for a time I became infatuated with learning church history, and prayed I would be in a situation someday where I could devote some time to it and learn it well.
Now here I am. God is good. My nausea has gone away, and I have become joyful again.

Part of my disgust is that I didn’t want to give up our daily hours together in scripture, I didn’t want to spend time in other “human” books. I felt it would weaken my faith. But, again, God is good. Jesus has reminded me that He will never forsake me nor leave me. Even when I am reading those other books, He is right there with me reading, too.

Also, learning Greek and Hebrew only augments the study of scripture. They offer nuances and meaning that can’t be captured in English. And Latin is vital to understanding early church history because much of the writing of that time have not been translated into English, and again, much of the nuance of meaning is best caught in the original language of the writings.

On a final note (I think),I don’t know that the meanings of God’s words change as much as their fuller meaning is revealed over time by the Spirit. That is to say that “Let there be light” in Genesis 1:3 refers to a physical light that lit the universe, and “You are the light of the world” refers to His transcendent light. God made physical light in order to explain to us His transcendent light. Therefore, all along the way, from His physical creation into the New Jerusalem, over time, in scripture the word “light” gains a greater, revealed meaning. His people spiritually grow in direct relationship to what they understand about what they hear Him say; we grow from being spiritual milk drinkers into being spiritual givers of bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty.